WASHINGTON (RNS) Several GOP presidential candidates sought to kick-start their stalling campaigns on Friday (Oct. 7) by preaching a gospel of low taxes and conservative Christian values to a summit of Tea Partiers, religious right activists and beltway insiders.
Every major Republican candidate except former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is scheduled to address the Family Research Council’s “Values Voter Summit” this weekend. The annual event is seen as a high-profile platform for reaching social conservatives, a key constituency in early voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina.
On Friday afternoon, the stage belonged to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, two staunch conservatives whose campaigns have faltered.
Perry, who started strong after launching his candidacy in August, has seen his poll numbers fall since several lackluster debate performances.
Perry’s campaign targeted conservative Christians early on, hosting a high-profile prayer rally in Houston and huddling with leaders of the religious right at a Texas ranch. But the Texas governor has pivoted recently to focus on pocketbook issues.
He continued that trend on Friday, devoting much of his speech to touting his state’s economy, which he said is responsible for 40 percent of American jobs created since 2009.
The keys to boosting employment, Perry said, are low taxes, fair and predictable regulations, reining in “frivolous” lawsuits and curtailing government spending.
Perry also highlighted the anti-abortion positions he has taken as governor, including the defunding of Planned Parenthood, which drew a standing ovation from the crowd of 3,000 social conservatives here.
Perry received a boost before he even spoke, when Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress introduced and enthusiastically endorsed him.
“Those of us who are evangelical Christians are looking for a candidate with three attributes: a genuine commitment to Christian values, a proven competency to govern, and also someone who is electable,” Jeffress said.
“In Rick Perry we have a candidate with all three attributes,” said Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, which lays claim to 10,000 members, and host of the television program “Pathway to Victory.”
Jeffress also called Perry a “born-again follower of Jesus Christ,” implicitly comparing him with chief rival Mitt Romney, who is Mormon.
Santorum, who placed seventh among GOP candidates in a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, cast himself as a veteran culture warrior who has consistently fought for socially conservative values.
“Most politicians, when it comes to these issues, tend to put them on the back burner,” Santorum said. “I have been out there fighting and leading the charge.”
A Roman Catholic, Santorum devoted much of his speech to recounting his successful push in the Senate to pass the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which President Bush signed into law in 2003.
He also unveiled a “zero-zero-zero” tax plan that would eliminate corporate taxes on manufacturers, cancel taxes on funds stashed overseas and later invested in the U.S. and “repeal every regulation the Obama administration has put in place.”
Ultimately, though, a healthy economy depends on a solid moral framework, Santorum said, arguing that two-parent families earn more money and depend less on social services than single-parent households.
“People talk about economic plans, but we cannot have a strong economy without strong families and strong values,” he said, promising that as president he would fight until same-sex marriage is banned in every state.
“Don’t you want a president who is comfortable in his shoes talking about these issues? That’s the difference here.”
The FRC’s political arm, FRC Action, will announce the results of its straw poll late Saturday afternoon.
Paul Blum, 70, of Clifton, Va., said he was leaning toward Romney until hearing Santorum’s speech. “We need to get the president out of the Oval Office and get in a nice Christian man or woman.”
(Josef Kuhn contributed to this report.)